Where will poor people live?

Tom Murtha is one of the founding members of SHOUT, and as with the rest of the team has strong personal reasons for wanting to ensure that people can be provided with safe homes that they can afford to live in. In this blog for Inside Housing, Tom shares some of those reasons, asking some of the questions that are often ignored in the flurry of housing public relations.

This article originally appeared on Inside Housing, and is reproduced here with the kind permission of the author.


They say that you always remember the first time. The first time that you give someone the keys to a new home, that is. I still remember mine. I was working in the inner city of Leicester in the late 1970s. As part of my job I visited people who had applied for a home. I arrived at the address. The property looked derelict but there on the first floor I found an elderly African/Caribbean couple. Through no fault of their own they were living in squalid conditions.

The rooms had no bathroom, no inside toilet and no heating. It was owned by a well-known landlord who had a reputation for exploiting the most vulnerable and needy. I placed them at the top of our priority list and within a few weeks they were allocated a modernised flat in the same area. I will never forget the look on their faces as I took them to view their new home. I was embarrassed by their gratitude for helping to provide what to me has always been a basic human right; a decent home at a price they could afford. I often think of that couple. I wonder if we would be able to help them today.

There is growing evidence from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) and others that poor people can no longer afford to live in housing association homes. There is also evidence that lettings to BME people are falling. These people need homes that they can really afford. In my view this means homes that are let at a social rent.

As the need for homes at a social rent grows the numbers are reducing rapidly. John Perry pointed out recently in a Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) piece of research that in three years the number of social homes have reduced by 120,000. This is the equivalent to the loss of a city the size of Leicester. I find it incredible that as the housing need among the poorest in our society is growing the supply of social rented homes is reducing. So called affordable housing will not plug this gap. I and many others are beginning to ask, who will provide homes for poor people in future?

Most housing associations were established to house those in the greatest need like the elderly couple in Leicester. Some by default or by design seem to be moving away from this. Many are seeking to be more commercial and in doing so are developing homes for sale, for market rent or even for so-called affordable rent. This is justified by claiming there is no alternative and that they are still meeting a need. It is also claimed that the profits will be invested in social housing. This might be true but poor people cannot access these expensive homes and the profits cannot sustain the size of programme of social rented homes that is needed to overcome the housing crisis. Only large-scale government investment will do this.

The situation is made worse by welfare cuts and risk strategies. In future, many people in receipt of benefitwill not be able to access our homes. This is because the homes are becoming too expensive, benefits are being capped and poor people are seen as too much of a risk. Slowly but surely they will be excluded from the majority of housing association homes. I know that some will challenge this. My response is that the evidence is already there but we are not measuring it.  Boards should be considering the combined effect of producing homes at much higher rents, reducing the number of social rented homes through conversions and the Right to Buy, together with the impact of welfare reforms, universal credit and benefit caps, on poor people. But are they?

Boards have a responsibility to uphold the values and core purpose of our organisations. Are they carrying out this role in relation to a primary purpose of providing homes for those in need? I am aware that many boards no longer receive information on lettings that would enable them to measure if these values are being delivered. If boards still believe that providing homes for poor people is part of their role, they need to ask for information to show whether or not they are doing it.

I have concerns that we have lost touch with the letting process and those who go through it. We now have many systems to improve efficiency and value for money. This is to be welcomed but some boards and senior staff have become too distant from the process and those who need our homes. We no longer see the situation that some people live in. We no longer understand how some people suffer in this age of austerity. Real Life Reform have done some great work in showing the human side of the welfare cuts and the housing crisis. We should all be regularly exposed to this to keep us focussed on our core purpose. Our job is not only to be managing efficient processes but also to be providing homes, hope and opportunity for those in need. We can only do this if we understand and experience what that need is

I fear that if I was a housing officer today I might struggle to provide the elderly couple in Leicester with a new home. I never knew their immigration status. I did not ask. The home we provided was funded with grant which greatly reduced the rent. They were able to claim benefit which covered the cost of the rent and the extra bedroom they required. The association I worked for understood and lived its values and provided homes for those in the greatest need. I know because I wrote the allocation and lettings policythat ensured this.

Some months later I heard that the old man had died of cancer. I visited his widow to pay my respect. As I left the house she gave me an old toolbox. She said that her husband had left it to me as a gift. He wanted to thank me for providing a place of safety for him and his wife in his final months and for allowing him to die with dignity in the knowledge that his wife would be secure in the future. I still have that box. It reminds me of them and that our purpose is to provide a home, a place of safety and security, and to enable poor people to live and die in dignity and in hope. If we can’t do this in future, where will poor people go?

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